Helen Smart claimed world, European and Commonwealth medals during her swimming career ©British Swimming

Tributes have been paid to British world, European and Commonwealth swimming medallist Helen Smart who has died at the age of 42.

Smart, who competed under her maiden name Don-Duncan, carved out a career in teaching after representing Britain at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney as she became headteacher of Worsley Mesnes Community Primary School in Wigan.

Alison Halliwell, the chair of governors at the school in the English town, announced the "sudden" death of Smart.

"Our heart-felt condolences are sent to Helen's family at this very difficult time," Halliwell wrote in a post on Facebook.

"I know this news will be a shock and cause great sadness to our community.

"I want to reassure you that the governors of Worsley Mesnes School are working with the local authority and school to ensure that our children, staff and parents will receive the necessary support in the coming weeks."

Helen's husband Craig Smart said: "She loved the school, staff, children and parents so much.

"She was so proud to reach her goal of being headteacher.

"She used to say to me all the time she could never see herself at another school.

"She was Worsley Mesnes through and through!"

Smart claimed women’s 200 metres backstroke bronze at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur before sealing silver in the event at the European Short Course Swimming Championships in Sheffield later that year.

She also won women’s 200m backstroke at the 1999 World Swimming Championships (25m) in Hong Kong, finishing behind Japan’s Mai Nakamura.

The following year Smart competed at Sydney 2000 where she finished 15th in the women’s 200m backstroke competition.

Rachael Ashcroft, a long-time friend of Smart, said they bonded over their love of swimming.

"Helen's steely determination and natural competitive spirit always inspired me," said Ashcroft.

"We competed against each other many times but somehow it always felt like we were competing with each other, helping each other along the way.

Helen Smart represented Britain at the Sydney 2000 Olympics ©Swim England
Helen Smart represented Britain at the Sydney 2000 Olympics ©Swim England

"Her achievements of numerous British records, British titles, European, Commonwealth, World medals and achieving her Olympic dream came as a result of her discipline, commitment, dedication and belief in herself.

"Despite her success, she was always humble and down to earth and she always helped others who'd had a bad race or didn't achieve what they wanted to rather than focus on herself.

"I know she picked me up a few times from bitter disappointment and made me smile.

"I never heard a bad word uttered by anyone about Helen and how could they.

"She was always kind, thoughtful and looked after everyone, especially me.

"The end of Helen's swimming career did not see the end of her focus and drive."